Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal reflects on Battle of the Bulge heroics

Capt. James Morgia sings a song with fellow veterans during the Battle of the Bulge anniversary events in January 2015.
Capt. James Morgia sings a song with fellow veterans during the Battle of the Bulge anniversary events in January 2015.

Everybody has their own definition of what makes a hero.

At 93 years old, Stratford resident and World War II veteran Capt. James V. Morgia has finally settled on one that he believes is suitable and he’s looking to forward to sharing it with the Trumbull community at its Memorial Day Parade and ceremonies Monday, May 30.

“The truth is no one knows who’s a hero or what heroism is, but what we can all agree upon is that we should have heroes,” Capt. Morgia told The Times.

In previewing his speech earlier this week, the Silver Star and Bronze Star recipient discussed his time in the U.S. military, where he led E-Company’s 334th Infantry, 84th Division, during the Battle of the Bulge.

His bravery during the battle and his conception of a pre-dawn attack strategy enabled American troops to go through deep snow terrain to conquer three German Tiger tank companies who held the high ground overlooking the town of Beho.

With the German forces set to destroy the town and its 10,000 civilians, Capt. Morgia did “an unthinkable thing” that morning and told his 150-man division to march single file up the hill.

It was an innovative battlefield strategy — one that included plenty of risk — that later received attention from several U.S. generals who decided to implement the tactic in subsequent battles.

“It was a dangerous situation because if the Germans were waiting for us, they could shoot down the entire column fairly easily,” recalled Capt. Morgia, who received officer training at UConn’s ROTC program and at Fort Benning in Georgia.

“It all happened so rapidly,” he added.

He entered the military service as a second lieutenant and quickly rose up in rank — and responsibility.

“I realized something shortly after the Battle of the Bulge and that’s that the general surrounding me kept giving me random assignments that involved some type of difficult problem-solving that happened right there on the spot,” he said. “He didn’t know who I was but they must have thought I was pretty special, and General Church took exception with what I did and that made me very proud.

“I was all of a sudden a do-it-yourself type of guy with a responsibility for assessing a problem and solving it quickly,” he added.

Undoubtedly a special man, Capt. Morgia went on to work for Sikorsky Aircraft for four decades following the war. However, his motivation the day of the great battle, when he and his fellow infantrymen ascended up the Belgium hillside at 2 a.m., was remarkably simple.

“My dad always told me: if you want to get ahead, you’ve got to get up early — basically, the early bird gets the worm,” he said. “And that day I had that message stuck in my head, it was all I could think about.”

The focus paid dividends as the captain and his troops made it up the hill to find the Germans asleep and totally surprised.

“They weren’t drunk or celebrating Christmas but it was on some level like George Washington’s surprise attack when he crossed the Delaware River,” Capt. Morgia said.

Morgia’s actions in Europe shortened the war, allowing earlier liberation of Nazi concentration camps and saving German civilian lives as well.

“We cut the war by 30 days,” he said. “We were determined to not let them bomb Beho.”

Belgian bond

Capt. Morgia, whose book Three Day Pass will be released next week, has visited the country he helped liberate several times since leaving it in 1945.

In December 2011, he traveled to receive a distinguished service award from Gouvy County and participated in a ceremony at the graves of fallen American soldiers. Additionally, he was reunited with the 71-year-old man who he saved 67 years before at the Neuve-Maison farmhouse basement.

Three years later, he was back again, participating in the 70th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge as part of The Greatest Generation Foundation contingent. He received the Medal of Honor on Dec. 13, 2014, from the Queen of Belgium.

“Beho has always had a very special place in my heart,” he told The Times. “The original crusaders descended upon it and turned around centuries before our troops liberated it from the Germans — it’s truly a holy town.”

Here comes chemistry

Coming home from the war, Capt. Morgia didn’t waste much time transitioning back into civilian life.

He graduated from UConn in 1946 with a bachelor degree in chemistry. Three years later, he received a master's degree in chemistry from New York University.

A Bridgeport native and Warren Harding High School alumni, Capt. Morgia settled back into the Fairfield County area when he was hired as Chief Chemist at Sikorsky Aircraft.

Bringing military experience and leadership with him to the job, he found himself in a familiar role — solving problems on the spot — which led to a series of innovations in the company’s materials and processing department.

“I wasn’t responsible for the mechanical part of the aircrafts but I worked on their finishing and ensured that they had the materials needed before they processed and made ready for testing,” Capt. Morgia explained.

He retired from the company in 1986 and continues to be a member of The American Chemical Society.

“The chemical processing was a huge step in the pre-testing stage,” he said.

Original uniform

An active member of the Trumbull VFW Post 10059, Capt. Morgia has worked with the Stratford VFW Post 9460 and is no stranger to marching in Memorial Day parades.

He said he was very much honored when Trumbull tapped him to be the Grand Marshal this year and that he looks forward to walking.

“I was in Stratford the last couple of years and they wanted me to ride in a car, but I can still walk, so I walked,” he explained.

His daughter, Jeanine Sansone, will be in attendance this year, which will make the event special.

“I’ll be placing the wreath at the war memorial and singing God Bless America — I can’t wait to display my work as a musician,” he joked.  

He will be doing it all in his original uniform — the same one he wore 70-plus years ago.

“I had it retro-fitted some years back,” he told The Times. “There’s not a spot on it — not a single hole.”

Celebrities and heroes

A subject of several books written about the Battle of the Bulge, including Joseph Neysen’s Gouvy-Beho and Larry Alexander’s In the Footsteps of the Band of Brothers, Capt. Morgia has been a bit of a celebrity soldier in his later years.

An English director interviewed him several years ago for a documentary about the Ten Greatest Battles in the history of the world. The Stratford native wound up appearing in the last episode in the series, which was titled Towing the Line, and ended up playing on the Military Channel.

He was also featured on The American Heroes Channel’s Ultimate Wartime series which aired April 2, 2013, where he recounted the great battle.

“He’s been contacted by a lot of historians and photographers who have done a great job of highlighting what he did,” said Sansone, a proud daughter of a U.S. veteran.

“He’s taken great care of himself,” she added. “He’s the walking poster boy of how to live to 100. He’s still able to walk on trips and in parades and maintains good shape.”

Capt. Morgia, whose name derives from La Morgia — a limestone rock-island in the middle of the Abruzzo countryside near Rome that is famous for the sculpture that bridges its notch — said he’s always taken pride in being “the rock,” whether in military service or in life.

“The truth is when I entered the war I didn’t know who I was or any facts about heroism,” he said. “All I know from the war is that the true heroes are the ones who didn’t come back.”